How Putin’s long friendship with Wagner boss Prigozhin turned ugly

  • By Andrei Goryanov
  • BBC Russian

Image supply, Alexey DRUZHININ/SPUTNIK/AFP

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“I had known Prigozhin for a very long time, since the 1990s,” Vladimir Putin recalled this week

Theirs was a relationship borne out of the murky world the place Russia’s state safety companies mingled with the legal underworld.

While Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner navy firm grew into one of the vital influential buildings in Russia, Vladimir Putin turned more and more depending on its battlefield successes in Ukraine.

But it was within the seedy scene of early 1990s St Petersburg that their paths first met, through the politically fraught years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Both males originate from Russia’s second metropolis and cultural capital.

Home to the Hermitage artwork museum and Imperial Winter Palace, it is usually thought-about the crime capital of Russia and a base for highly effective gangs.

The actual circumstances of their first encounter are unknown, however Prigozhin was contemporary out of jail and Mr Putin had just lately returned from a mission in East Germany as an officer with the Soviet safety service, the KGB, and was on the lookout for a approach into politics.

Convicted for the primary time at 17, Prigozhin was no stranger to crime. After a suspended sentence for theft within the late 1970s, he was given a prolonged jail time period for theft in 1981.

He and two others had grabbed a lady by the neck on the street and tried to strangle her, earlier than working off with her winter boots and earrings.

When he left jail in 1990, Russia was a really completely different place. Instead of the outdated Soviet chief, Leonid Brezhnev, reformist chief Mikhail Gorbachev was in energy, the Berlin Wall had fallen and perestroika (restructuring) was properly below approach.

From scorching canines to foie gras

Prigozhin began out as a St Petersburg hot-dog salesman, however by the mid-1990s he had opened a restaurant. The Old Custom House is more than likely the place the 2 males first met.

The menu of foie gras and oysters and attracted native crime bosses in addition to the town’s highly effective mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. Vladimir Putin, then aged 40, went there too as Sobchak’s deputy.

Prigozhin’s single restaurant turned a sequence and his clientele included politicians from far past St Petersburg.

By the flip of the century, when Mr Putin turned president, the 2 males had grow to be shut associates and Prigozhin’s nickname, Putin’s chef, dates again to this time.

A photograph exhibits Prigozhin serving dinner to him and President George W Bush.

Image supply, DMITRI ASTAKHOV/AFP by way of Getty Images

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Vladimir Putin appreciated to entertain leaders like President George W Bush in St Petersburg

For a person reminiscent of Russia’s new chief, it was crucial to have a private chef to make sure his meals was protected to eat.

Ever the suspicious KGB thoughts, he had additionally served as the pinnacle of its successor, the FSB.

It was additionally handy to have a person whose innermost secrets and techniques he would have recognized and whom he may affect.

With Vladimir Putin within the Kremlin, Russia’s safety companies slowly started to take again management. Prigozhin took on quite a lot of Kremlin duties, notably these past the safety companies’ attain.

Their affiliation was now at arm’s size, so the person within the Kremlin may plausibly deny involvement.

Prigozhin arrange a media empire centered on spreading disinformation inside Russia and overseas. The tales it invented have been typically so fantastical that no state propaganda equipment would dare to unfold them.

As social media started to realize affect, he arrange a “troll factory” whose foremost impact was to go away Russians with the sensation there was no such factor as reality and no level on the lookout for it.

It took one other decade earlier than he admitted to being the brains behind the “Internet Research Agency”.

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Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) pictured serving Vladimir Putin (centre) at a dinner in 2011

After the Ukrainian Maidan Revolution in 2013-14 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the primary stories of the Wagner non-public navy firm surfaced. Wagner supported pro-Russian separatists in Crimea and within the east of Ukraine.

Mercenary organisations are banned by Russian regulation, despite the fact that Prigozhin and his mercenaries had grow to be more and more essential for stamping President Putin’s authority.

So till as late as spring 2022, the Kremlin maintained that it had no connection to him.

Wagner additionally performed a outstanding position in Syria – and that is when its ruthless commander, Dmitry Utkin, first got here into view as Prigozhin’s shut affiliate. The mercenary group has for years been energetic in a variety of African nations, from Libya and Mali to Central African Republic.

But formally, Prigozhin had no particular relationship with the president.

Mr Putin or his press secretary Dmitry Peskov would say merely that they have been conscious of the existence of a Russian “private businessman” who was concerned in these actions. But it was clear such operations could not be performed with out Kremlin consent.

President Putin solely admitted in June that Wagner had obtained monumental state funding for years and that its mercenaries had fought valiantly in battle. And but as a result of non-public navy firms have been unlawful, he mentioned that as a gaggle, they didn’t exist.

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Prigozhin turned most vocal in a sequence of video statements from Bakhmut the place he criticised the defence institution

It was not till the summer season of 2022 that stories emerged of Wagner combating in Ukraine.

Within weeks, Prigozhin was touring Russian prisons, recruiting inmates for the warfare effort.

The Kremlin spokesman spoke of him as a person “whose heart aches for what’s happening” and one who was “making a big contribution”.

Prigozhin opened a Wagner Centre in St Petersburg in November and his criticisms of the Russian military and the defence ministry turned extra vocal.

As Russian forces have been pressured right into a sequence of retreats in Ukraine, his criticism reached a peak.

He complained that the military command was refusing to recognise the mercenaries’ contribution to the warfare effort.

Later, he brazenly accused Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, of “starving” Wagner of ammunition whereas the group was dropping hundreds of males within the combat for Bakhmut within the east of Ukraine.

Image supply, Wagner/Anadolu Agency by way of Getty Images

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Prigozhin was filmed speaking to Russian navy figures within the southern metropolis of Rostov-on-Don as his mutiny unfolded

At one level, Prigozhin even aimed his criticism on the president, referring to him with the Russian phrase for grandad.

“How can we win a war when dedushka is a moron?”

He didn’t title Putin, however Russians have been left in little question he was straight implicating him.

The Kremlin steered away from commenting on the escalating feud, nevertheless it was a row that might shake Russia’s management to its core and finally carry down Prigozhin.

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Watch: Putin’s first phrases on Prigozhin airplane crash

He refused a defence ministry demand to carry all mercenary teams below its management. As the state of affairs reached boiling level, he dared to query the very objectives of the warfare.

On 23 June, he introduced a “march for justice” on the street to Moscow.

Sources have instructed the BBC that his mutiny was an indication of Prigozhin’s desperation and an try to draw President Putin’s consideration to his battle with the Russian navy.

“He was worried about losing his autonomy,” one supply who knew Prigozhin defined.

Wagner mercenaries shot down two navy helicopters and a airplane and killed as much as 15 Russian troopers.

Without naming him personally, President Putin described Prigozhin as a traitor who “drove a knife in the back of the country”.

This botched revolt was to be the ultimate rupture between them.

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One of the final pictures of Prigozhin confirmed him purportedly in Africa

Days after the insurrection had led to failure, Vladimir Putin met his former ally on the Kremlin for 3 hours, alongside with greater than 30 Wagner commanders.

Vladimir Putin had no extra want of him, however there have been nonetheless questions over the destiny of his males.

Prigozhin clearly believed his future lay in Africa and his closing on-line video was purportedly filmed in an African area the place he claimed: “Here we are, putting God’s fear into Isis, al-Qaeda and other bandits.”

But his story seems to have come to an finish quickly afterwards, following a trajectory just like different examples in Russian historical past. A person handed the duty of executing the Kremlin’s cruellest insurance policies was himself brutally punished and finally destroyed.

Or in Vladimir Putin’s personal evaluation: “He was a man with a difficult fate and he made serious mistakes in life.”

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